The revered pair oversaw one of the great tour triumphs of the professional age when they masterminded a series victory over the Springboks in 1997.
Then, as now, South Africa were world champions and Townsend was their trusted lieutenant on the field, playing a disciplined stand-off’s role in the first and second Test wins which clinched the series with a game to spare.
Townsend was 24 then. Twenty-four years later he has been recruited as Warren Gatland’s attack coach on the composite side’s latest sojourn to South Africa.
The game has changed considerably since ’97 but the unique challenge of the Lions remains the same: how to blend players from four different national teams into a united force capable of taking on the world’s best.
As ever, preparation time is short, with the competing interests of clubs in England set to make the build-up to the tour unnecessarily fractious. The Gallagher Premiership final is scheduled for June 26, the same day that the Lions are due to host Japan in a farewell Test at Murrayfield. As things stand, Gatland, Townsend and the rest of the coaching team will be denied the services of their English-based players in the lead-up to the Japan game which makes blending the disparate elements of the squad all the more important when they arrive in South Africa.
“You have to get your principles in place and build connections with the players,” said Townsend. “But then it will be evolving through games. A lot of what you see will be the players playing a style of rugby that we believe will win a Test series but also connecting with new team-mates and working off each other.
“I remember that as a player, building those relationships off the field with new team-mates and friends. But also on the training pitch and working out what a player would do in a certain situation, getting a real buzz and thrill from training at your best to show your new team-mates you deserve to be in the squad.”
As things stand, the tourists will play five matches in South Africa in 14 days ahead of the first Test on July 24, although a revised tour itinerary is expected this week. Townsend said it was vital to get “buy-in” from the players.
“You don’t appreciate the scale of it until you’re in the mix and you see the schedule. Even as a fellow coach, in the past you would just switch it on and you would be excited to see the team play without realising they’ve only had two training sessions after landing in the country, they’ve gone Wednesday to Saturday and so logistically how do you put a team together that plays a game and then it’s just two days to prepare for the next one?
“That takes a lot of organising and getting buy-in from the players, going game to game helping the team prepare. It’s the unique challenge of the Lions. Countries don’t go on these tours but the Lions still do. It’s brilliant we’ve got midweek games into Saturday games and a Test match series against the world champions.”
The achievements of 1997 were captured for posterity on Living with Lions, a documentary which provides a brilliant snapshot of the tensions and triumphs of the tour on and off the park and offers the clearest insight into Telfer and McGeechan’s methods.
Townsend intends to tap into the two very special resources before leaving for South Africa.
“I spoke to Geech a couple of days ago and plan on having a lot more discussions with him over the next few weeks,” said the Scotland coach. “He was very excited and loved talking about the coaching process and working with players. He will be someone I will be on the phone too a lot.
“Jim too. I tend to go round to his house once a year for a coffee and he just lives 10 minutes away from me so I’m sure I’ll be doing that in the next wee while.
“They sounded really excited about it. But they said, and Warren mentioned before, that it’s really hard work. You’re going from game to game with a quick turnaround and often a brand new team.
“Geech did say you’ll learn a lot from working with some outstanding players and getting to know different people and coaching groups. He said it will make me a better coach and should make the people you work with better when you bring ideas back to Scotland. So that’s all great for the long term. But we understand that in the short term there will be some tough times and touch challenges from a coaching perspective.”
The 1997 tour was also notable for the strong Scottish presence in the Test team, with Townsend, Alan Tait, Tom Smith and Rob Wainwright all selected in teams which drew on the very best of the four nations and blended them into formidable line-ups.
“The concept of the Lions hasn’t changed,” said Townsend. “You have guys coming from four different countries to form a new team. Everyone comes in having to earn their place. The players are excited about playing for the Lions. Having chatted to a number of the Scottish players, they are desperate to be involved.
“Going to South Africa won’t have changed. It’s probably the most passionate rugby country in the world. They’re world champions, they produce some very good rugby players and big men. So that’s a similar challenge too.
“I’ll be learning a lot from people who have been on most recent tours, Gats in particular. He knows the formula that works well for the Lions. And that goes off the field too, to make it enjoyable for the players so they can bond together.”